Wrong Direction Farm

Maple Syrup Season

I stopped by Mast family’s farm on my way home this afternoon to restock gallons and quarts of their maple syrup.  Maple season is in full swing, and this spring the sap flow has been tremendous.  For some of their runs they are seeing twice the flow compared to where they were last year.

Their maple syrup has been a popular seller among our customers, so I wanted to give everyone an idea of what things look like on their farm.  I’d normally show a picture of the people producing this food, but the Mast family is Amish, and thus they would prefer not to be photographed (no they don’t believe silly ideas that cameras will steal their souls; it is more of a humility principle).  But they don’t object to me taking pictures of their sugar shack.  During sugaring season days are long: hauling sap, tending the fire, fiddling with the evaporators, bottling syrup, repairing broken plumbing, and trying to keep up with all the normal farm chores, so I try not to take up too much of their time.  They work hard to produce maple syrup (as well as raising beef cattle, wholesaling pumpkins, and operating a metal fabrication and repair shop and a fabric shop all on their farm).  Here’s a brief photographic tribute to the work they do.

Monroe's Gelding

We had to take the buggy out because the lane was too slick for my two wheel drive van.  Hey, some people pay for Amish buggy rides, but I get mine for free.

Tap Spile

Instead of big metal spiles and buckets, maple trees are tapped these days with small diameter spiles and plumbed through tubing networks to bulk tanks at the bottom of slopes.  The smaller drilled holes are easier on the trees.  And nobody misses the work of carrying thousands of buckets of sap by hand!

Maple Tubing

The tubing is self supporting with loops positioned around each end tree.  Forty gallons of sap for each gallon of syrup, one drip at a time.

Maple Lines in Woods

Here is a stand of sugar maple trees (a sugar bush if you want to speak the lingo), with a complicated network of lines.  The Masts need to walk their lines each day when they have heavy, wet snow since sections can get knocked down, buried, and frozen.

Sugar Shack

The sugar shack puffing off clouds of steam as the water evaporates.  The big draft horses that move this wagon are off in the barn taking it easy for the rest of the afternoon.

Maple Firebox

This firebox is about three feet wide and six feet deep.  The family’s relatives down the road run sawmills for their shed-building business so there are always lots of wood scraps available for stoking the fire.  I think they have some system of mixing hardwood and softwood in a sequence, but I couldn’t quite pick up on the pattern of how they were loading wood into the firebox.

Maple Preheater

This is the preheater section to get the sap up from 35-40 degrees to 180-190 degrees.  It is an improvement over the old-fashioned direct heating method because it captures heat from the steam exhaust stack and gives that otherwise lost energy a second go-round through a heat exchanger.

Maple Evaporators

Here is the evaporator section.  All the stainless steel and sanitary fittings are pricey, but they make the entire system much easier to clean than older tin evaporators.  As the syrup progresses to the left, it becomes increasingly concentrated and closer to the point where it becomes…

Finished Syrup

…finished syrup.  It was hard to get a clear shot with all the steam.  From here it is transferred into 55 gallon stainless steel drums for storage.

Daily Samplers

Each day they bottle a small sample so later in the year they can cross-reference the color and grade to the barrels produced for a specific batch.  Daily changes in temperature shift the characteristics.  The bottles on the right are oldest.  The sap started moderately dark, and has become lighter as the season has progressed.  It will turn very dark in the next few weeks as the season winds down.

 

Delivery Updates Spring 2018

We have a few new delivery locations to announce for spring 2018.

Madison NJ Neighborhood Delivery  Open to the public.   Monthly deliveries at 10AM Saturday mornings, starting 7 April 2018.

Westfield Area CSA Delivery  Open to members of the vegetable CSA.  Learn more about joining the group.  The CSA meets weekly for vegetable shares, but we’ll be delivering our products on a monthly basis starting Thursday, 14 June 2018 and continuing until November.  For folks who aren’t part of the CSA, you may order for our Westfield Neighborhood Delivery (next date is Friday morning, 6 April 2018).

North Shore Staten Island CSA Delivery  Open to members of the vegetable CSA.  Learn more about joining the group.  The CSA meets weekly for vegetable shares, but we’ll be delivering our products on a monthly basis starting Thursday, 14 June 2018 and continuing until November.  For folks who aren’t part of the CSA, we don’t have a public neighborhood delivery on the North Shore yet, but we do have a South Staten Island Neighborhood Delivery (next date is Saturday morning, 7 April 2018).

We’ve had some interest in setting up a delivery in the White Plains, NY area.  Delivery would probably be Saturday late afternoon once each month.  We haven’t been able to nail down a suitable location yet.  If you can make a suggestion for a good spot (accessible, parking for our van plus room for people picking up orders, and of course, a willing parking lot owner!), please let me know.

Last item, our Paramus delivery is shifting a little earlier to start at Noon and finish by 1PM.  Next delivery there is Saturday, 7 April 2018.

Follow-up: Frost Free Chicken Waterer

In January I wrote about our attempt at winter-proofing our chicken water.  I wanted to follow up after giving it a real-world test to report that it exceeded my expectations.  On mornings when the temperature dropped below -10 F we had to thaw the drinking nipples with a rag dipped in a bucket of warm water, but in mild winter weather like this week when the overnight temps are in the high single digits or low teens, it doesn’t need any help.  When we had the warm spell in February and early March with nights in the 20s I was able to leave the heater unplugged and just rely on the recirculation and the heat retention in the insulated tote.

Chickens with Winter Drinker

The chickens have managed to destroy the insulation and duct tape immediately adjacent to the nipples, so I’m sure this will require some new insulation and wrapping before next winter.  But knowing chickens and their propensity to peck, I’m actually surprised they were so gentle on it!

New Higher Prices!

Consider this the corollary to my recent article on independent farming, operating outside the vast commodity and investment driven markets.  In order to be better farmers and to better serve you, we’ve decided to raise our prices.  Permit me to do some farmsplaining.

I’ve just finished all the paperwork for the 2017 taxes, and this year we continued our unbroken losing streak by spending a lot more money than we made.  Since we started the farm in 2011, we’ve spent $389,000 more than we’ve received.  I include both capital and expense spending in this figure.  This does not include the purchase price for the farm itself.  All of this deficit has been funded through a number of loans and by working a second full time job.

To keep the farm going, we live a spare lifestyle to divert every spare dollar to the farm.  We try to grow as much of our food as we can.  We do all our own repairs (and we leave a lot of things unrepaired).  We sleep in unheated bedrooms.  We use an icy outhouse rather than fixing the septic system.  Just about everything we have is secondhand.  We don’t have college funds for the kids and we don’t put extra money into the 401k.  I have taken three vacation days off from the farm since 2011. We work long hours in all weather, in sickness and in health.  None of this is mentioned as groveling for pity.  Rachel and I knew what we were in for, and we are OK with the rigors that accompany our lifestyle.  Many other farmers live the same way, and billions of people around the world deal with circumstances far more difficult.  I only share this so our customers can understand our situation, because I believe the plain fact is that we sacrifice more to produce this food than most of our customers do to purchase it.  I don’t say that with any bitterness, but I’m pretty sure that’s the way it is.  (I’ve rewritten these sentences many times to try to avoid being exaggerated or abject or belittling, and I can add all kinds of qualifying statements here, but I’ll let these remarks stand as they are.)

Spending RevenueTrends

Sales are growing and spending is starting to flatten as some of our infrastructure investments pay off, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

The good news for 2017 is that we were able to bring the ratio of total spending to revenue closer in line and we were able to dramatically increase our sales, but the bad news is that we’re probably two years from breaking even and about six years from the point where we’ll be making a minimum wage salary from the farm.

If we are going to farm, we can’t keep subsidizing our customers.  That isn’t sustainable agriculture.  If we raised our prices on all products by $2 per pound we’d break even and be on track to earn a bare bones living from the farm within a year or two, but of course that would place our prices outside the realm of what most customers would consider reasonable.  I think the better approach will be to target a few items with moderate increases, and then to keep working on growing our scale and capacity and using that efficiency to continue lowering our production costs.

Eggs are going to go up.  Even though they are already expensive relative to commodity organic eggs, we’ve always priced them as a loss-leader.  That needs to change.   I’m not aware of any mainstream product marketed in our region that comes close to their attributes:  truly pasture raised, certified Organic feed, and soy free.

I haven’t figured out all the price adjustments, but if you watch our website you’ll see a few things change during the next week or two.

For some people the increases may be hard to absorb, but I feel that if we are going to be honest about the food we produce, that same integrity needs to be reflected in the prices.  And if we want this farm to last to support another generation, we need to be able to give them reason to hope that they can make a living on it, that it isn’t just a sword of noble principals on which they can impale themselves.  A truly sustainable farm must outlast its founders and sustain those who follow.

The Other Food Additive

We get a lot of questions about what is in the food we provide.  “Is it antibiotic free?”  “What about hormones?”  “Do you add preservatives?”  These are all good questions that people should be asking.

There is another question that nobody has ever asked me, but I think people are missing  the most insidious and overlooked additive in the natural/organic/artisanal food market.  Someone should ask me:

“Do your products contain any venture capital dollars?”

I’ve had a front row seat over the recent years observing our pasture/grass fed industry, and it is astounding to see how inevitably the addition of outside investors leads to a weakening of standards.  (I’m not going to name names here.  For one thing I don’t have libel insurance, and for another my point isn’t to single anyone out but rather to look at the overall context.)  With clockwork regularity I’ve watched the cycle repeat.  I’ve seen niche providers, just a single family farm or a group of like-minded farmers start something excellent.  They struggle and persevere and grow to a scale that attracts attention.  There’s the chance to become niche-mainstream, and then there’s the promise that an infusion of capital will allow them to reach the regional and national distribution networks.  And money does the trick, but it works too well.  Within a few years the abstracted brand becomes all-important but the principled approach that built the brand erodes.  Local beef starts coming from Australia, but nobody notices.  Pasture raised hens still have outdoor access, but only on dirt lots.  Grass fed somehow allows for “seasonal grain feeding”.  When the California figs get too expensive, the Turkish ones replace them even if the organic certification is suspect.  Commitment to paying farmers fair prices degenerates, and contracts are abandoned without notice when global markets fluctuate.

I don’t believe that the capitalists are shifty-eyed villains.  Granted, a few are unmitigated jerks.  We have one guy making the rounds here in his luxury car, arriving at Amish farms and tightening the screws on cash-strapped farmers and telling them they can sue him if they don’t like the new terms, knowing full well that Amish can’t conscientiously take part in lawsuits.  But I’m confident that most investors aren’t miserly grouches out of central casting.  And their reasons for investing aren’t as crass or jaded as we’d expect from an episode of Shark Tank.  By and large they get involved because they like the products and they like the story.  They aren’t bad people, but their investment moves the brand into a system where perception is more important than authenticity.  Once one dives into the commodity pool, one either sinks or swims according to commodity rules.

Perhaps the saddest part is that for all the lowering of standards necessary to reach mass markets, many of these brands still fail and end up bankrupt.  Or worse, they are successful and fall prey to a more ironic fate whereby they are bought out by the largest industrial-scale conglomerates, the same ones against which the niche provider set out to differentiate themselves.

I don’t make any claim that our farm is the best farm or that we achieve all our ideals.  If you know us, you know we stumble often.  But as bona fide farmers, we can provide an authentic backstory for the products we sell.  We’re doing this because we love it, and we believe in it, and every day we live it.  That’s what makes real family farming special and utterly different from investor-owned farm brands.

So what’s next?  Maybe I should redesign our carton labels to read “Venture Capital-Free Eggs”.

Turkeys and Trashing a Trashy Trailer

Cue the drumroll…  Announcing that we’ll be raising turkeys this summer!  We hope to have turkeys available for Thanksgiving, and if all goes well, to also offer turkey breasts, legs, and ground turkey.  We’ll be getting a slow start, just 200 turkeys (100 for us, 100 for another farm).  The numbers are big enough to make it worth our time, but small enough that it should allow us to reuse a lot of our chicken equipment without requiring an entirely new set of brooders, intermediate field shelters, and feeders for the turkeys.

However one piece of equipment we’ll need is a big portable range coop suited to the turkeys after they are about eight weeks old.  I’ve been watching Craigslist for a while for the right deal to come along, and this week I think I found it.  We paid $100 for this nasty 35 foot camper trailer with a collapsed roof.

Wilderness Trailer

Classic 1991 color scheme, albeit a little worse for wear.

Thanks to an intrepid friend providing some roadside assistance and moral support (thanks Nate!), we were able to tug this trailer fifty miles back home.  About five miles from the house one of the dry-rotted tires blew up, but we were able to limp the rest of the way home on three wheels.  I’ll check with the tire shops in town for some bald used tires and a set of inner tubes to replace these.

Shredded Tire

This little tire went thumpa-thumpa-thump all the way home.

The scrapyard value of the aluminum skin should offset the cost of the disposal fees for all the wet furniture, wood, and insulation we remove, but the primary value for us is in the frame.  This will become a low-cost and relatively lightweight shelter for the turkeys.  We’ll attach roosting poles every two feet along the frame and install some shade tarps over it.  I’m thinking about welding a four foot extension to the rear so we can use a standard 40 foot recycled billboard tarp for shade.

Kitchenette

The kitchenette.  Can you spot the black cat exploring?  This is a cat’s delight, full of mouse nests.

The first task is to tear it down, and then we’ll build it back up.   I’ll post more pictures of our progress when we actually start making some progress.

Tape Deck

But hey, it comes with a cassette deck.

Lunchmeat Style Salami

We have been enjoying the latest addition to our salami lineup, a sliced lunchmeat style fennel salami.  The Italian name for this salami is finocchiona, but since its name just means that it is made with fennel, we opted for the less intimidating descriptive title.  For the flavor profile, think of generic Genoa salami, then amp up the taste of the meat and the fat (because we’re using legit pasture raised pork), then shift the experience ever so subtly with the bright, sweet taste of fennel seeds.

The salami is lacto-fermented, using a lactic acid bacteria culture and some turbinado sugar to feed the bacteria.  After consuming the sugar as fuel, the bacteria naturally sour the sausage with lactic acid, giving the salami its distinctive pungency.  After initial fermentation, this sausage takes about four months to dry to the correct moisture level before it is sliced and packaged.  The ingredients are (as with all our meats) straightforward:  pork, salt, celery extract, turbinado sugar, black pepper, fennel, oregano extract, minced garlic, and lactic acid starter culture.

Fennel Salami Package

I love those big pieces of black peppercorns scattered through the slices!

We’ve been eating it on sandwiches, rolled up with cheese, shredded on pasta, and in any other occasion for which we can invent a justification for opening a new package.  Enjoy!

Another Year, Another Truck

With today’s welcome swing into the 30s I was able to take advantage of the comfortable weather to start tearing into our new old delivery van.  This one is a 17 foot Uhaul truck, a 2006 Ford with 130k miles.  Mechanically it is OK, neither great nor terrible.  It obviously spent a some of its life in warmer climates, so the rust isn’t as advanced as I would have expected.  The truck is about two feet shorter than the bus it replaces, but I think the boxier layout will yield a small increase in usable space.  If I can arrange things so our delivery freezers are easily removed, it will also be a good general-purpose farm vehicle, with nearly 3 tons of payload capacity.

E450 Cargo

The cargo area is dry and well-proportioned. I’m glad there are no wheel wells protruding into the box.

I changed the oil and transmission fluid, replaced a windshield wiper arm and sprayer (with parts from the old van), repaired the cargo door, replaced the battery (again stealing from the old van), replaced the coolant, lubed the zerks, and sprayed down a bunch of vulnerable electrical and mechanical spots with Fluid Film.  The front brakes look surprisingly good despite sitting for a few years.  I haven’t yet looked at the rear brakes.

Things I need to watch or to complete:

  1. The oil cap has some coolant residue in it.  The previous truck had a similar gasket problem.  I added a bottle of the copper Barr’s Leak and I’ll monitor the coolant level and the oil cap to see if I’ve bought myself a reprieve.  I’d rather not pull the intake and/or the head to fix it.
  2. The starter wouldn’t engage the first morning after I drove it home.  A few hammer blows set it right, and it has behaved well subsequently.  I’m going to chalk that up to a starter that was out of the habit of starting, but I’m carrying a hammer with me just in case.
  3. One of the front tires has a severe bald patch on the outside.  When I take the truck to get inspected, I’ll hire the garage to adjust the toe alignment on this wheel.  Hopefully they’ll let me swap this tire with one of the duals on the back and they won’t make a big deal about it.  I have a set of nearly new tires on the old delivery van, but I’d like to get the last 20k miles out of is set before swapping them out for the new ones.
  4. While I’ve still got momentum on this project, I probably should replace the rear differential fluid too.  The rear diff is one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind items.
  5. I think the fuel pump’s check valve is worn, because it takes longer to crank than it should.  My 1995 Ford has had the same problem for the last 100,000 miles so I might just leave it well enough alone.

Once all the known mechanical items are resolved, it will be time to kit out the truck box for all our freezers and delivery paraphernalia.  I’ve got to keep my nose to the grindstone, because spring is coming and March and April will be exceedingly busy times as we race to prepare for the arrival of a thousand new chickens.

When the kids saw me scrounging parts from one truck to install in the other, they said I was the “One Piece at a Time” guy about whom Johnny Cash sang.  I’ve always felt that song is a metaphor for a lot of what we do to run this farm, so I’ll leave you with that classic.

Toward a Better Logo

We’ve had the drawing of a sitting pig for a while. It wasn’t really intended to be the official farm logo. I drew it for an early advertisement we printed, and with one thing leading to another it “stuck”. The art was ripped off from this (public domain) postcard dated 1908. Germans sure love their good-luck pigs, but that’s a topic for another day…

Because the logo selection wasn’t intentional, I’ve never been happy with the way it pigeonholes us as a pig farm. Yes, pigs are my favorite animal. Yes, I like the look of the drawing. But we raise cattle and lots of chickens too. And the farm is more than just the animals; it is the land and the people and the water and the mosquitos and on and on. How do we convey the totality of the farm in one evocative image?

One approach for a new logo is simply to add more critters. There are many diversified farms that have taken a similar tack, drawing each farm animal in profile, either lined up, nested, or stacked up in an ascending tower. I like that, but it is a pretty common formula.

Rachel and I were brainstorming and it occurred to us that very few farms use chin-forward profile shots for the animals, and even fewer have the foreshortened effect that you often get when photographing an animal that is interested in sniffing, pecking, or eating the camera. Rachel sketched up line drawings based on the three beasties below, with the goal of having all three sharing the logo.

I like the whimsy in these pictures and I think they reflect well on the fact that Wrong Direction Farm is not a pretentious institution. They show the trust the animals have for us, and they are distorted enough to indicate that none of us takes ourselves too seriously. But the problem is, where does inclusion stop? We are working on plans to raise turkeys this year. Should we add turkeys now even if we don’t have them? What about ducks? What if we stop raising one group of livestock? What if we start selling our garlic and pumpkins? What needs to be in the logo and what should be left out?

Thus our thoughts turned to what the farm is really about. Above all else, this is a pasture farm. Perennial pastures are central to everything we do. Our work is all dependent on taking care of the plants that take care of the soil that takes care of everything else. So that led us to think about grass and dandelions and clovers and burdock and all the other wonderful plants and weeds that make our pastures great. But what about the unseen side of things? What about the roots? What if we show them too; what if they dominate the image?

New Roots for Agriculture

Our latest ideas are somewhere along the lines of the cover of this book by Wes Jackson. I am not enthusiastic with this illustration, but I like the idea that the unseen roots are much deeper than the aboveground growth. And that encapsulates much of our aspiration for the farm. We want to show that the behind-the-scenes world is complex and messy and essential.

We’d prefer to stick with a stark black and white drawing. A successful image will convey the diversity and connectedness of pasture plants, while avoiding getting literally down in the weeds and rendering the drawing pedantic.

We aren’t done sketching it out, and we’ll probably need some professional help to get a good vector drawing before we have anything to reveal to our customers. But until then, feel free to drop us a line to let us know any thoughts you have. If you are our customer, what image encapsulates your ideas about our farm when you are scrambling an egg or grilling a ribeye?

Building Better Chicken Feeders

I’ve received several requests for details on my chicken feeders, so since I’m getting ready to build a few more I took the time to make some measurements.

Please don’t consider anything I write here to be an absolute requirement.  These are just my observations.  There are a lot of ways to build a good chicken feeder.  And there are even more ways to build a terrible feeder.

Below I diagram the cross-section of the business end of my layer hen feeder.

Chicken Feeder Schematic

None of these dimensions are critical, but all of them work well together.  My experience after building (and buying) several frustrating feeders indicates that:

  1. Steep slopes are better.  If you are using pelleted feeds or shell corn you might be able to get away with 45 degree angles, but I think that 60 degrees is about the minimum slope.
  2. Keep a pretty big gap at the bottom of the slope.  Inevitably some feed will get clumpy, so I want to minimize bridging and plugging.
  3. Terminate the hopper at least 1 inch below the bottom of the tray’s lip.  If the hopper is close to bottoming out in the tray, it will clog.  If it is flush with the lip, it will probably spill feed too easily.
  4. Provide some sort of lip on the tray.  Chickens will pull feed out as they withdraw their heads.  I used to use plain wood or PVC trays and the feed waste was obscene until I arrived at this solution.  On my broiler feeders I use rain gutters as the bottom tray, since the K-gutter has a nice integral lip.  In this case I’m using the L-shaped bend on prefab wire shelving, which provides a dual purpose (see #5 below).
  5. Grille the chicken!  The wire shelving material has been cut to allow 2″ spaces in the feeder.  Because the chickens can stick their heads through the grille they can easily access the feed, but they can’t side-swipe it out or reach in with their claws to rake it out.
  6. Place the feeder above the ground on a platform, suspended by chains, or on a trailer.  Provide room for the chickens to scoot underneath to clean up any spilled feed.  All feeders are subject to the depredations of rats and mice, but ground level feeders are terrible.  I have found that even with frequent moves, my old skidded feeders would always show signs of rodent tunneling whenever I moved them.
Layer Feeder Grille

The hen feeder uses the wire shelving as both a feed lip and an access grille.  I’ve tried using 2×4 welded wire fencing, but the constant rubbing wears it out and breaks the welds.  Shelving seems to have the right combination of durability and affordability.

Broiler Feeder Grille

Picture from last summer.  Here is a similar arrangement we use for the broilers.  In this case the bottom tray is a K-style gutter, so it has a built-in feed lip.